Friday, August 14, 2009

What Is Technology Doing to Serendipity?

In Vacation (the original one, where the family truckster heads to Wally World) Clark Griswold turns to Ellen and says, "Why aren’t we flying? Because getting there is half the fun. You know that."

He’s talking about serendipity—making fortunate discoveries by accident. While plenty of Griswold’s road trip discoveries were less than opportune (e.g., cousin Eddie’s Hamburger Helper), his point is that serendipity is inherent to the journey. And thanks to technology, it’s under attack. Wait...what?

Last week, I read William McKeen's New York Times article (aptly titled “Serendipity”). He believes technology undercuts serendipity. While it leads to more choices and greater efficiency, in his words “there’s an emptiness in finding something quickly.” Because it is so easy for us to find exactly what we are looking for, we lose out on those dear moments of surprise that leap out from the shadows and send our hearts racing in unanticipated directions.

Coincidentally, I saw a coworker’s tweet (thanks @alexesterchung) linking to Steven Berlin Johnson’s reaction to the McKeen article. SBJ’s take? Technology increases serendipity, making it easier to find random information or wander down non-linear paths. He refers to serendipity as “stumbling across something accidentally that is nonetheless of interest to you.” Keep that last bit in mind.

My opinion stands somewhere between those of McKeen and SBJ. Call me out for taking the easy road, but I think technology increases the amount of serendipity while decreasing the potency of it. Technology makes it incredibly easy for me to find content both related to and independent of what I’m looking for. I am a few clicks away from figuring out what to do with the lemon balm growing in my window garden. And perhaps while I’m clicking, I’ll find a tasty recipe for lemon shortbread cookies. Or I’ll go completely off track and (somehow) end up reading about the new G.I. Joe movie. I wouldn’t encounter these while thumbing through The Complete Book of Herbs.

Serendipity, however, implies randomness within the equation. It is accidental in that it doesn’t relate to what you were doing or searching for. Technology makes the “randomness” less random (if more frequent). Sites like StumbleUpon and Pandora, both brilliant, expand my cultural or musical horizons within certain genres, but they don’t dabble far beyond the boundaries of my core interests. That’s not what they’re intended to do. Some see sites like these as supporting homophily—the opposite of serendipity.

While there is an endless amount of fascinating and irreverent content online, completely random searches aren’t often fruitful. That is where they parallel the pre-internet days of yore. Scouring library shelves and rolling up your sleeves in some good, old-fashioned research is a painstaking process, but it makes those fortuitous occurrences all the more enchanting. For more on the internet, homophily, and hopes for a serendipitous digital future, have a look at this Ethan Zuckerman post. And here, my colleague Ida Benedetto recaps Zuckerman's take on serendipity and how we consume and interpret media.

While technology has made the road to serendipity narrower, that road is full of more frequent and more relevant surprises—in that they related to areas you're already interested in. Yet I still love getting ink on my fingers knowing I’ll find articles and stories that will never show up in my RSS feeds.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Come On, Get Happy

A glass half full will always lead to disputes—unless, perhaps, it is half full of whiskey.

Last month, I was graciously invited by Ian Fitzpatrick to contribute to the Optimist Conspectus. In his words, it’s a “compendium of contemporary optimism, one perspective at a time.” He asks What you are optimistic about? and then looks at commonalities among the answers.

Ian—of Boston’s Almighty—started the project after observing a proliferation of optimism despite global unrest, the economic quagmire and a host of other planetary hazards. Might as well add swine flu to that list. Ian wants to explore where all this hope stems from. When telling me about the project, he referenced the New York Times visualization on presidential inaugural addresses. In a similar way, he is identifying the most frequently used words in the individual perspectives. Here's more info. Ultimately, he plans to turn the findings into a set of data visualizations. A map of optimism. I like the sound of this!

A few other perspectives I particularly enjoyed: Neil Perkin (fingers crossed for the Stone Roses), Matt Moore, Faris Yakob.

My cynical side shines on occasion, but I believe in optimism and the powers of collective optimism. According to my local library, at least 178 others do too—that's how many before me requested Michael J. Fox's new book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist. The (two-part) question on my mind is this: Is optimism greater when times are difficult? And if so, why is it easier to be optimistic when the metaphorical skies are cloudy?

I think this resurgence of hope is rooted in a greater effort in seeking it out...and a greater appreciation when we do find it. I liken this to the upward trend in restaurants offering home style cooking. Just as we find comfort in mom’s casserole, we are eased by those glimmers of hope that tomorrow will be better than today. In the midst of a recession, optimism is to our minds as breakfast food is to our appetites. We appreciate it. We crave it. And we want it served all day long.

There’s no shortage of optimism in our industry. PepperDigital’s Sam Ford, who also contributed to the Conspectus, summed up the why in saying “recessions provide a very helpful culling and pruning process for most industries. Outmoded practices and processes get re-evaluated and phased out, and companies are often forced to innovate or fade away.” If history is any teacher, now is the ideal time to churn out some exquisiteness. As explained in this BusinessWeek article, recessions act as innovation catalysts...they can be a good thing for your company. Consider these two welcome additions to my life: Trader Joe’s and Apple’s first iPod—both arrived in the middle of economic downturns (in 1958 and 2001, respectively).

Why wouldn't we always try to innovate? Throw laziness and disillusionment out the window. Now is the time for the big guns to start acting like start-ups, for the start-ups to keep experimenting, and for the experimenters to enforce greater constraints. As for you? It may just be time to cue up Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” and slide across the floor in your socks. Sans trousers. It’s just that exciting.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

When Oatmeal Speaks

Go humans go. This ad greeted me Monday morning as I exited the subway in DUMBO. It found me in Chinatown too. I was intrigued and a bit startled. I assumed it was part of a larger campaign, but this was the first I’d seen. Go humans me, it had Martian undertones. And that Quaker man! He hasn’t changed much over the years.

I’m keen on oatmeal and was curious to understand what the slogan meant. So I found the site. The only mention of "Go Humans Go" is in the URL and page title. The focus is the Quaker Go Project, a hunger fighting initiative. The usual conversation starters – YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter – are there, though they sit at the bottom of the page, like neglected banana candies. Regardless, I wanted to see what Quaker had to say, so I went to Twitter to follow @QuakerTalk, whose bio reads:

Go Humans Go!
Responses monitored and updated by Quaker’s PR team & oatmeal fans!

Including “fans” seems a little hokey in an otherwise transparent bio. Don’t front. But’s the conversation, word for word:

QuakerTalk – Monday, 12:07pm
@QuakerTalk: Kicking off the week with a hot bowl of Quaker Oats

My reply – Monday, 1:48pm

@jeccaberta: @QuakerTalk starting my week with oats too! mccann's or quaker...decision time.

QuakerTalk’s response – Monday, 2:03pm

@QuakerTalk: @jeccaberta Definitely Quaker! Have a great week :)

(I chose McCann’s but didn’t tell them)

Me, attempting to start a new conversation – Monday, 2:41pm
@jeccaberta: @QuakerTalk i miss the wilford brimley oatmeal commercials of yesteryear.

(No response from @QuakerTalk. Disappointment.)

Me, attempting to start convo #3 – Tuesday, 3:33pm

@jeccaberta: @QuakerTalk question...are steel cut oats more nutritious than instant?

QuakerTalk’s Reply – Tuesday, 4:49pm

@QuakerTalk: @jeccaberta: the nutritionals are the same, but they do offer a heartier texture and a rich nutty taste

I enjoyed this one-on-one dialogue, but that’s not what Twitter is good at or really designed for. So…what unique value can a brand offer on Twitter? I’ve been looking at @QuakerTalk’s tweets over the past couple weeks. Some are upbeat thoughts (“Gearing up for a great Friday – Go humans go!”), others promote their hunger fighting efforts (“Submit a Quaker Go Grant and get involved in your community today! Check out the details here”). I’d like to see more stuff like that, especially if they can use Twitter to galvanize support. It’ll also provide some context for their slogan.

But in terms of engagement, I think Quaker’s Twitter presence would be way more effective if they spoke in a unique voice, say...oh, that of a Quaker man from the 1800s? Think about it. His truth-dispensing tweets could be mighty entertaining. What other company has as its spokesman a hugely recognizable fellow in Quaker attire? That alone leaves plenty to talk about. Why hasn’t he changed with the times? I’d like to hear him answer.

Brands can put all the energy they want into having a friendly social media presence. But until there is a well-defined, entertaining personality behind the (puritan) mask, bonafide or outstanding conversations will be hard to find.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

20 Pecha Kuchin' Seconds

I once saw a man do 20 back flips in 20 seconds. Granted this was on vimeo, but was damn exhausting to watch. What if he tried to do 19 more equally amazing tricks? In a row? That’s just ridiculous. And so not humble.

I had my first Pecha Kucha experience on Monday night. The term loosely translates to “chit-chat,” though when I walked into the venue (Le Poisson Rouge), chit-chat took the form of shouting over live music. Good thing I brought my glow sticks to navigate through the crowd.

So Pecha Kucha is fun! I want to try it sometime. I like any form of storytelling that has restraints on what you can do – whether that’s through visuals, time, or word choice (like last month’s David Bowie love story).

In case you’re not familiar with Pecha Kucha, the formula is quite simple:
X = 20 slides + 20 seconds/slide

Six minutes and forty seconds – that’s all you get to cover 20 slides. The X variable here is defined as a particularly innovative and/or artistic person, like: Dickson Despommier (heck yes, vertical farming), DJ Spooky, Tina Roth Eisenberg (aka swissmiss) and Jonathan Harris, who gave me a newfound respect for whale hunting and the accompanying blubber. Good stuff.

If I could describe a solid Pecha Kucha presentation in one word, it might be: HUMILITY. The presentations I was drawn to didn’t shove 20 back flips into each slide. They taught me something new, without cramming each slide to the brim. They said, “Hey, follow this story,” not “Hey, memorize these chronicles.” That’s easier said than done, especially when you’re talking about something you’re so passionate about.

What about Kucha Pecha? Rules in reverse: Slides can display only words, no pictures. Speakers must rely on music and/or performance art to convey their point. Sounds very silly, actually…like an elaborate game of charades.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Please...Have a Seat

I just bought my first sofa. A Victorian gem, it dates from the 1800s - carved walnut trim, textured velvet upholstery, button tufted back, woo-wee.

A haiku is in order:

Lovingly restored,
You give teatime new meaning,
Welcome home, mauve dream.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Branding Disrupted

On Friday I had the pleasure of attending a CreativeMornings session – a monthly meet-up organized by Tina Roth Eisenberg (swissmiss) and Carl Collins. This one, conveniently located in 45 Main by HUGE, (thanks for the tasty breakfast, neighbors!) featured Armin Vit, a man well-versed in design and its relationship to branding.

If I were to condense his thoughts into one point, it would be this: Reality gets in the way of branding. It muddles the way you experience and think about the companies, products, even logos that marketers work so hard to crystallize in your precious mind.

Reality is unavoidable (and, well, essential). In terms of brands, my favorite part of Vit’s presentation had to do with the Pepperidge Farm Soft Baked Chocolate Chunk Dark Chocolate cookie. In short, his wife loves this treat, as did he until the day he opened up a bag to find major skimping on the chocolate chunks. The bittersweet goods were nearly absent. (I wonder if this was an economic move by Pepperidge Farm to leave no scrap of batter unused?)

His example was simple and funny. wasn’t about branding. It was about a flawed product. Branding can do little to fix that. It’ll only draw attention to it. On the other hand, if you have a solid product and kickass branding to boot, the disconnect that reality presents won’t do much detriment to the product. Example: the Target brand projects an image of bliss and joy emblazoned in red bullseyes. A lot of Target stores are a far cry from the clean, sunshine-filled oasis seen in ads. But Target is still crazy popular (and for good reason).

I consider branding to be perceived reality. As long as there are crowded store lines, glum employees, and an elephant of a recession, reality won’t parallel branding. So sometimes you’ll get a cookie lacking in chocolate. Worse yet, there are tastier cookies out there that you don’t even know about, thanks to uninspired marketing efforts.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Brief, Imagined Love Affair: David Bowie, Will You Be My Valentine?

I wrote this valentine by splicing and rearranging David Bowie's spacey, heartfelt phrases. The words are his, the story is mine. Happy Val's Day.

I just met the wrong guy. Oh man!
Asked for his name: Ziggy.
Ziggy really sang jammin’ good.
Insane sunshine, his soul shines.
Wonder if he’ll ever know how I’ll wish upon, wish upon, day upon day…

Just keep cool.

Dear Ziggy, far above the moon, I’ll run with you.
Mummy is yelling “no,” but I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years.
Ooo, your face. Your consolations. Your pretty cranium.
Fall into my arms and tremble like a flower.
Look out world, you know I’ve got mine.

Just keep cool. I just keep cool.

Dear Ziggy, I’m looking for a ride on top of Manhattan.
There’s gonna be space to boogie up there.
We like dancing and we look divine.
Let’s sway on top of Manhattan, you and me.
We don’t give a damn. Whop, whop, whop.

Real cool. I just keep cool.

Ziggy, here we are at the center of it all.
Fighting in the dance hall in the dark.
You want more and you want it fast.
You’ve tried so hard to fly in the fog.
But I guess I’m feeling very still.

Walk tall, keep cool.

Ziggy…You could look into my eyes, you know.
Your hands ache in pain. Sweet hands.
I wish I was smarter. Unskilled hands.
The tears on the face stumbled to cry.
It’s so hard for us to really be.

Never look back, walk tall.

Now here this, Ziggy.
You gotta get smart.
A crooked smile. Where’s your shame?
Them toffees…sweetly reminiscent, something mother used to bake.
Kissing all the ladies. Don’t break my heart.

Never look back, act fine.

Dear Ziggy, I got so lost on my own.
I don’t want to leave.
Buy a drink for me, we’ll dance the blues.
There’s only one way to linger on.
Hot tramp, I love you so!

p.s. Ziggy plays my song in tune.
Ain’t that close to love?